Sunday, February 7, 2021

Trying To Be Better

As we start the second semester, I am coming off a period of reflection throughout the winter break and January term.  When we finished up the first semester of the school year, I felt quite good about the results of my planning and instruction throughout the fall. Teaching in this remote and hybrid environment is difficult. My Orchestra managed to put together some incredible virtual performances and, on the whole, I feel like I met the needs of my students. With that said, I know that I can be better. I have been reflecting on areas for improvement for the past two months or so and was able to outline some changes for the spring term to my Orchestra at our first rehearsal last Tuesday. I would like to share some of those changes today, in hopes that one or more of them may resonate with you or you may be compelled to consider how you can be better as well as we head into the spring.

First, many of you know that I have been creating audio guides for my students to use remotely in lieu of a conductor. To create these guides, I record all five parts of the string orchestra score using my electric violins. I have written and spoken about these guides extensively in the past. Even with the success of those guides, I have felt that I could probably do more. So, one of the changes I am making this term is, in addition to the full string orchestra audio guide with click track, I will be providing students with their individual part with click track. I am anxious to see how this impacts student performances. One or two students have already told me that there were sometimes rhythmic questions when they only heard the full ensemble audio guide.  The individual recorded parts will permit students to zero in on their part, associated styles, articulations, specific intonation, and other aspects of the piece. I will provide these at full tempo and at reduced tempi for further customized practice opportunities.

Another addition to my instructional model will be weekly videos outlining specific performance practices for the pieces we are learning and performing. Obviously, I gave this type of instruction through Zoom last semester. But, one would have had to dig through the Zoom recordings to find those specific instructions. This term, I will make a Youtube video for each voice in the Orchestra, outlining performance practice, dynamic considerations, tricky fingerings or passages, and potential use of essence for students who may not have the technical capabilities or confidence to fully perform a section or passage within the piece.

Another change or addition for second semester will be an increased live chamber experience for on-campus students during our Tuesday night rehearsal time. Due to the large size of our ensemble and the split nature of our rehearsals, I kept Tuesday nights as fully remote classes and group lessons. After some thoughtful conversations with our choral director, we decided to combine my string class and his choral class together in small chamber ensembles during our common Tuesday evening rehearsal time.  Singers will be masked with special singing masks and separated with plexiglass drum shields. The masked strings will double vocal parts. This will provide a small facsimile of the live ensemble rehearsal for small groups of students. We are hopeful that this opportunity to play and sing together will be meaningful for everyone.

Another change for this term will be a stronger plan for individualized performance and grading expectations. Last semester, I noticed a subset of the Orchestra did not complete all of the recorded performance expectations. Following my individual meetings with students, it became clear that some students felt overwhelmed as the semester went on. So, for this term, I will have a set of basic universal repertoire for everyone to learn and submit. This will include primarily Grade III and IV repertoire that is straightforward to learn and record. Then, there will be several additional, more challenging pieces which students can opt into playing. Following my individual meetings with students, I was pleased that about 75% of the orchestra indicated an interest in playing all of the repertoire. But, for the 25% that requested a lighter load, it is my pleasure to offer this alternative. Recording for a virtual ensemble experience can be stressful for some. I want to make sure that I honor these various levels of stress and the various amounts of time it may take for students of different playing levels to prepare a piece of music. This more individualized plan is a step in the right direction, I believe.

Finally, I intend to meet individually with each of my students more regularly this term. At the very least, I would like to have another 10 minute check-in at midterm and again at the end of the semester. As I indicated in my last post, these opportunities for personal interaction are invaluable.  

I believe each of these slight changes in my plan for the second semester will pay huge dividends.  What changes are you making as we begin the second semester? What worked during the first half of the year? What needs a little tweak? These are always important questions for us as teachers. I am certain that I will have new ideas as we finish this semester also. This is the beauty of teaching. We are never finished. We never have all the answers. I firmly believe that we can always do better. I invite you to consider these questions as well.

Here's to a great second semester and a great spring.


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